The Name Game

If you want people to think you are “in the know,” watch your acronyms. EDDA, which was the Eastern Dairy Deli Association – although Bakery had gotten slipped into the name, but not the acronym, some time ago – is now passé as the association has been freshly christened the Eastern Perishable Products Association. NEDDA, which was the New England variant of the dairy deli name, is now NEFFA – the Northeast Fresh Foods Alliance.

What’s behind these name changes? To some extent, the name changes can be discounted as an inside game for the associations. Just as most business executives want their companies to grow, most association executives want their associations to grow and prosper. EDDA and NEDDA both have the idea of taking on more products; EDDA just added seafood, for example. This could mean more members, bigger trade shows, more money, etc. NEDDA is looking to not only expand the product line but also expand geographically – New England and Northeast are not synonyms.

Yet, in promoting the change of names, both associations also make claims that the changing nature of the industry, particularly the growth of Home Meal Replacement, drives such a change.

In one sense, some skepticism is due for these claims. After all, delis have for generations carried products beyond deli meats and cheeses. In fact, earlier association’s connections have not led to any great merging of departments. These associations have been dairy/deli associations for a long time, yet, though deli sells some dairy products and dairy may, in some stores, sell some classically deli-type products, the departments are mostly quite separate. You just can’t find any buyers at large chains that both buy both milk and roast beef.

Equally, though meal solutions and Home Meal Replacement seem to represent some kind of new confluence of departments, we may be looking at it in the wrong way. We may be mistaking the ingredients for the product.

In fact, we may be making a classic retail mistake. Restaurants don’t think they are in the wild pheasant business just because they serve some under glass. Equally, one can sell a beautiful nicoise salad in the supermarket deli, and that doesn’t mean the deli is suddenly in the lettuce business or the tuna business. These are but ingredients.

The distinction is rather clear. Meal solutions are not about a merging of the seafood department, the meat department, the produce department, the bakery department, etc. with the deli department. In fact, if we offer as a meal solution a consortium of these department offerings, we will, almost surely, fail the consumer. Meal Solutions is about the distinction between the deli and the other departments – for the deli is the only perishable department in the store to sell large quantities of cooked and prepared food. In a day in which ready-made meals are the rage, and in a society in which cooked food is part of every meal, meal solutions is about recognizing that other departments are selling ingredients for make-at-home meals, whereas deli is selling the finished product.

In this sense, getting seafood, produce or, for that matter, dairy and deli under one association banner is really about minor conveniences and efficiencies. If a trade show attracts both dairy and deli buyers, then a big cheese company can exhibit both its prepackaged singles and its slicing cheeses.

In fact, operationally speaking, HMR is in no small part about the liberation of the deli department from the dependence on other departments for ingredients and about a switch from a salvage mentality to a customer service mentality.

Traditionally, if you note a special string bean salad being merchandised in the deli, it was an odds-on favorite that the produce department was having trouble moving the string beans. In fact, the produce used for in-store-prepared food operations was traditionally bought, at retail, from the produce department. Actually, I’m overstating – the real tradition was to send the night deli clerk to steal the string beans from the produce department.

What meal solutions have to mean is that the menu choices are driven by consumer preference, not some kind of salvage operation. As in-store preparation grows, the importance of buying directly the exact ingredient in the pack delis need becomes more and more important

It is important for delis to recognize that they are the HMR department. This recognition will drive the departments to acquire the competencies necessary to compete with other foodservice offerings. In a sense it is the next stage in the growth of the department – one in which produce, seafood, meat and other foods are procured independently for use in a commissary and in-store meal development. Combine this chain-based cooking with the purchase of a prepared product and one has the basis for the meal solution offering.

Names change; after all, there are plenty of deli clerks and more than a few managers who wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I asked for the appetizing department. So maybe we will christen our deli departments “meal solution centers.” Plenty of chains have vice presidents of perishables, and it is possible that we may make an integrated fresh foods department. In fact, if internet shopping takes off, it may well take the form of having dry groceries shipped from a central warehouse and supermarkets may become fresh food stores.

All this name changing, though, shouldn’t obscure the fundamental distinction. Ninety-five percent of what is sold in the seafood department or the meat department is an ingredient to cook and turn into a meal. Ninety-five percent of what is sold in the deli is cooked food ready to eat.

Sounds like the closest we’ve got to a real meal solution.